An American in Beijing: Landmark Domestic Violence Ruling in China

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Category: Feminism, Human Rights, Public
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Last weekend, a Beijing court granted a divorce on grounds of domestic violence, in a case which has garnered widespread attention and debate in China for the past year. In 2011 an American woman, Kim Lee, went public on social media websites (including with graphic photographs) with allegations that her husband, an infamous English teacher by the name of Li Yang (founder of “Crazy English”), was abusive. Her battle for due legal protection and recognition of her plight culminated in the Beijing decision, which granted her a divorce, and issued a three-month protection order against Li Yang – apparently the first time such an order has been granted in Beijing. In addition to acknowledging the domestic violence, the court ordered Li Yang to pay 50,000 RMB [approximately $8000] in compensation, and a further $1.9 million as part of the divorce.

Kim Lee has become a symbolic hero for domestic violence victims in China, and her case has ignited interest and debate about the issue of domestic abuse. In particular, Kim Lee’s persistence in seeking (Chinese) legal remedies and vindication is an important example to other victims of abuse in a culture which continues to deny the gravity of the problem and the need for legal reform and protection, meaning untold women (and, presumably, men, although the majority of victims are women) are left to either put up with abuse, leave without support or protection, or take matters into their own hands. As Kim Lee put it, “You can pick up the law or you can pick up a fruit knife. But it’s still easier for people to pick up the knife than the law, and that’s what’s happening”.

To give an example, also this month, the Sichuan High Court rejected an appeal against the conviction of Li Yan, a woman who was sentenced to death in August 2011 for killing her husband. Li Yan hit him with the butt of a rifle in the course of a fight; her lawyer said that her husband had been threatening to shoot her with the rifle. Extensive evidence of her long-term abuse at the hands of her husband was submitted to the court, but was not considered sufficient to prove domestic violence and accordingly was not taken into account in her conviction and sentencing.

Although the Marriage Law of China refers to domestic violence, there are no laws specially designed for domestic violence. It is not defined in the Marriage Law, which simply provides that “domestic violence shall be prohibited”, is a ground for divorce following unsuccessful mediation, and that it may result in administrative penalties or criminal liability.

Sun Xiaomei, a deputy to the National People’s Congress and professor at the Chinese Women’s College, has spoken about the urgent need for legislation on domestic violence to provide better protection for victims. “Society is well aware that domestic violence exists, but there are no guidelines in law to clarify when judicial departments can get involved or how the perpetrators should be punished” [reported on chinadaily.com.cn 3/13/2008]. According to the All-China Women’s Federation, Chinese authorities receive around 50,000 complaints of domestic abuse annually.

Clearly reform, and urgent reform at that, is needed to provide safeguards for battered women. It’s not simply a case of revising the laws, though. Chinese society is at best uneducated about the issue of domestic violence, and at worst sees it as unproblematic. Kim Lee’s husband’s lawyer, for example, defended his actions, arguing that “Domestic violence is when a man hits and injures his wife frequently over a long but has no reason, but my client did that because he had conflicts with his wife” [emphasis added]. Li Yang himself responded to his wife’s allegations with something far short of contrition: “Our problem involves character and cultural differences…I hit her sometimes but I never thought she would make it public since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders.”

Perhaps not, but perhaps the example of Kim Lee, a tenacious American who brought her expectations about finding justice and vindication in the law with her to China, and successfully found some measure of both in the Chinese system, will challenge those Chinese traditions, at least in some homes.

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